by CHRIS ROGERS
Out back, the rear of the new Envirolastech plant in St. Charles is practical, not pretty. Eighty tons worth of milk jugs and similar plastics are stacked in bales. A loading dock ramp leads up to a stockpile of broken glass bottles. A skid steer sits parked nearby. This is where the magic starts.
From there, the old bottles from around Southeast Minnesota will be cleaned, ground up, and mixed into proprietary formulas and extrusion molded into deck-building materials, pallets that withstand water and freezing temperatures, and permeable pavers that are — according to Envirolastech — stronger than concrete.
In a community where some have longed for a return of manufacturing jobs since the Northstar Foods fire of 2009, Envirolastech leaders say they have created 19. Their LEED-certified building captures rainwater for use in the manufacturing process, and last week, hosted a contingent from Governor Dayton’s cabinet. “This is a crown jewel for us right now,” St. Charles Mayor John Schaber said of the new factory.
Laughing about her height, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Shawntera Hardy used a stack of decking material as a stage as she pointed out the chiefs of the state departments of agriculture, transportation, natural resources, and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Envirolastech shut down production so the small crowd could hear Hardy and Envirolastech Operations Manager Geno Wente speak. Production workers in hi-vis shirts stood around talking while Wente gave the St. Paul agency heads a tour. He explained that Envirolastech had found ways to utilize types of plastic and glass most recyclers do not want, described a partnership with the Mayo Clinic to recycle previously discarded plastics, and mentioned how some companies were interested in using the salt-resistant Envirolastech material for building sea walls. “We take stuff that’s destined for a poor recycling option or the landfill and turn it into a viable product,” Wente stated.
Paul Schmidt, in a plaid shirt and jeans, hung back slightly. Schmidt is the inventor who founded Envirolastech. He has been working in plastics for years now, but he said the breakthrough that enables Envirolastech to firmly bind plastics without harsh chemicals or radiation was something he discovered by accident. “I blew up a machine, and that’s what came out of it,” he stated.
Matt Benson is in charge of three floors of industrial engineering testing equipment and the Winona State University Composite Materials Technology Center. He and his student-workers strapped Envirolastech’s pallet materials and faux lumber into machines that pushed and pulled the products and dropped steel weights on them until they broke. The lab provides strength, durability, and all kinds of testing to the numerous composite companies in the Winona region and businesses across the globe, while giving students valuable experience. “It performed as expected,” Benson said of Envirolastech’s products, adding, “Their thing is that they’re using almost 100-percent recycled materials, and because of that, they do have some unique properties, but I’m guessing that their finished product cost is also significantly lower.”
Envirolastech CEO Jeff Mintz praised the city of St. Charles and its economic development consultant, Chris Gastner of Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA), for helping make the new factory possible. Mintz put out formal requests to numerous cities near Rochester. “They were by far the most organized and responsive,” Mintz said of Gastner and city administrator Nick Koverman. St. Charles was more than just organized. It gave the company the land for $1, granted it tax increment financing, provided more reliable backup electric power than other cities, and loaned the company money. Winona County and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund also made loans, and DEED provided the company with funding tied to job creation. “I don’t think it would have happened without all of those things,” Mintz stated.
Mintz and Wente discussed big plans to open up several new factories in different locations. Hardy urged them, “Stay in Minnesota.” They responded that they plan to make the St. Charles factory their flagship and, if a proposed hotel next door is built, bring in employees from distant factories to be trained in St. Charles.
The state agency chiefs were on a tour of Southeast Minnesota promoting Minnesota Business First Stop, a interagency state program meant to provide “high-level customer service to help streamline the development process for complex business expansions, relocations, and major startups that involve financing, licensing, permitting or assistance from multiple state agencies.” More of that would be good, Mintz told the government officials. “We probably spent hundreds of hours to find out what programs apply to our program,” he said of multifarious grants, loans, and programs for businesses. If the government could provide experts to give entrepreneurs a single point of contact for advice on all those different programs, Mintz said, “It would be huge.” He also said that paying for and finding a company to conduct a feasibility study was a big hurdle for the recycling startup to overcome. “It’s a big chunk when you’re just getting going, and without it, you can’t go anywhere,” he said of the cost of feasibility studies. Most banks require third-party feasibility studies before considering business loans.